NASA Is Trying to Grow Vegetables in Space

By Eleanor Morgan

Some 21-day-old plants that have been grown in analogue VEGGIE pillows (photo courtesy of NASA/Gioia Massa)

A weird blog appeared on NASA’s website in 2012. Called "Diary of a Space Zucchini", it was written in first person as if by an actual courgette that was on the ISS (International Space Station), 230 miles above earth. Posts had a strange poetry to them: “I sprouted, thrust into this word without anyone consulting me,” wrote an astronaut called Don Pettit, the man quite literally behind the vegetable. “I am utilitarian, hearty vegetative matter that can thrive under harsh conditions. I am zucchini – and I am in space.”

What is so exciting about a vegetable in space? The astronauts didn’t actually eat the courgette, whose growth was diminutive inside its galactic gro-bag. But it did grow. That's what's exciting. Dr Gioia Massa, a NASA scientist at Kennedy Space Center, says "we are running out of space on earth" and apocalyptic scientists are forever predicting that eventually our planet just won’t be able to put out any more. In theory, space farming could, one day, be vital to the survival of humans.

Companies all over the world are researching space agriculture. Research teams at the University of Guelph in Ontario are looking at durable crops like barley, the Mars Society in Utah is trying to replicate Mars conditions in a huge desert greenhouse and there are universities all over the world looking at vertical garden design that could be applied in space. If they get the technology right, our great grandchildren’s grandchildren might be eating tomatoes that were grown in colonies on the moon. We’re not quite at lunar salad stage yet, though. Like all good things, it has to start small.

NASA have been testing plant growth in space for years but with mostly academic goals in mind – like figuring out what zero-gravity does to a plant, and, crucially, what to do about light. If you paid attention to anything other than diagrams of penises, vaginas and areolae in biology lessons, you’ll know that for photosynthesis to happen a plant needs sunlight and water. That’s pretty much it. Of course, if you’re on a space station, where the day-night cycle happens roughly every 96 minutes, things get a little tricky.

This prototype VEGGIE hardware (photo courtesy of NASA/Gioia Massa)

This is where Massa comes in. She has developed a tiny (roughly one metre square), deployable plant growth chamber known as a “VEGGIE”. It makes use of LED lighting and is filled with “dry growth media, a bit like kitty litter, because water and gas just form giant balls up there” for use in space. This is the first attempt to grow things that could actually sustain astronauts alongside their packaged meals, so it is, you know, a Big Deal. She sounded really excited.

“We’re flying the first pack up to the ISS in March, containing seeds of a red romaine lettuce,” she says, from Kennedy Space Center. “They won’t actually be able to eat this first plant, though, as it’s the first time we’re trying it out. They’ll be cutting it, freezing it, then sending it back, to look at food safety. SpaceX CRS-4 [NASA’s space courier, basically] is scheduled for July, and we can progress after that.” So are we talking years before salads are being tossed in orbit? “Much less, hopefully.”

Although Massa says that “astronauts and cosmonauts have a pretty varied menu up there,” you imagine that snipping open countless vacuum packs of irradiated steak might get a bit boring. Everyone needs a little green sometimes, even if you end up chasing a leaf around in mid-air like some sort of intergalactic, zero-gravity PacMan. “Any fresh [or at least fresh-ish – it has to be prepared way ahead of time] produce that gets sent up, like carrots, gets devoured immediately.”

Red romaine lettuce plants grow inside in a prototype VEGGIE flight pillow (photo courtesy of NASA/Gioia Massa)

The physical benefits of eating fresh vegetables in orbit must be endless, though. “Right,” says Massa. “As you get further away from Earth, galactic radiation can be dangerous so the more astronauts can be fed as nutritiously as possible, eating things that will facilitate DNA repair, is going to be huge.” The tangible nature of growing plants, presumably, will help stop space crews losing their shit when they’re confined to a tiny, floating metal box hundreds of miles above the earth, too. “Yes,” she says, “you can get pushed to your limits up there.”

The human psyche is a tender thing, bruised easily – and gardening can often be a good salve. Patients on mental health units are often encouraged to garden, as are inmates in prisons across the world, because being engaged with something tangible, caring for something natural that you can watch grow, can provide stress reduction, alleviate depression and help rehabilitate an overloaded or bored brain. Naturally these benefits are welcome in space, which tends to be a stressful, depressing and boring place for humans at the moment. “Plants can serve as a little reminder of the earth below,” says Massa, who believes that even the tiniest splash of chlorophyll in an ocean of stark white surfaces will have its benefits.

But what if astronauts get too attached? What if eating the plants they grow ends up feeling like they were slaughtering their cat back home, or, worse, like chopping up a fellow crew mate? When Pettit went into space for six months, he took the courgette up with a broccoli and a sunflower plant as a personal project, growing them in plastic bags. He gave them light by moving them around the space station windows and fed them a liquid derived from on-board compost. “We considered them crew members,” Pettit said in an interview last year. “It was delightful to have those plants around, to feel the little hairs on a leaf tickle your nose, to see that sunflower in full bloom. It changed our whole experience.”

Massa is realistic, if infectiously optimistic, about NASA's expectations of VEGGIE. "We don't want to say, 'Oh, this is the next great thing' just yet," she offers. However, if it is successful, VEGGIE makes our future look very different indeed.

Follow Eleanor on Twitter: @eleanormorgan

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